This weekend Afghanistan will have its presidential elections. Much has been made by the Bush administration about the liberation of Afghan women and girls from the harsh Taliban rule as one of the unintended side-effects of the U.S. hunt for bin Laden, and it is indeed true that life has much improved for some women in Afghanistan. Over a million girls now go to school, for example.
But at the same time Afghanistan is now a country in anarchy, and the lack of security hits women especially hard. Election workers who seek out women have been subjected to violence in several areas of Afghanistan, and though over 40% of the registered voters are now women, getting them to the polling places may prove difficult. For one thing, it has been impossible to find enough women to manage the female polling booths, and given Afghanistan's conservative nature, many women will not vote if the booth attendant is a man.
But supposing that some women at least do manage to get to the voting sites, how will they cast their votes? A recent survey shows that 72% of Aghanis believe that men should direct their womenfolks' voting choices. Given this, it's unlikely that these women's votes would somehow recast the political power structure in the country.
The local and parliamentary elections scheduled for next year could prove more informative on the question of Afghan women's political influence, as the new constitution guarantees a quarter of the seats in the parliament to women. But this may not be as empowering for women as it looks. Here's what Nisha Varia, the author of a report on Afghan women has to say about the quota:
The question is whether women can really stand as candidates. I think the positions will be filled but in areas with a dominant political faction, they will select women for the seats, but the women won't actually be able to participate freely or fully. They will be front women for the factions. Those who want to run as independent or to be a part of the process won't have a chance to take up leadership positions within the party structure.
In some ways the ability to vote may not matter very much to most Afghan women. Their lives are so affected by tradition, religion and their immediate family members that any distant political changes in Kabul might go completely unnoticed. A country which imprisons a twelve-year old for refusing her father's decision to marry her off to an old man has a long way to go before it can be called a democracy, whether women vote or not.